There are lots of books about the holocaust but this one takes a novel angle, and challenges some commonly held preconceptions about how the holocaust has been remembered in the United States.
The holocaust features prominently in official mainstream US and American culture. That much is obvious. Wasn't it always so, at least since 1945? The answer -extraordinarily - is that it wasn't. In the late 40s, through the 50s and up until the 1967 Six-Day War, the holocaust was something American Jews were ashamed of, something about which hardly anything was spoken, not in public at any rate. The 1967 war changed all that, and the holocaust has moved from the periphery to the centre of American and Jewish life, in both Israel and the United States.
There were a variety of reasons for this change. Before 1967, American Jews opted to fit into mainstream US values. In foreign policy, this meant acquiescing in German rearmament and the reintegration of that country into the anti-Soviet alliance. American Jews tolerated the rehabilitation of Nazi-era bureaucrats and the offer of sanctuary to Nazi war criminals in the United States. Quiescence extended even to American Middle East policy: when Eisenhower forced Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in 1956, American Jews demurred (can you imagine such a thing happening now?).
The apotheosis of American ideals of integration and social mobility in the late 1940s/1950s meant that American Jews played down the holocaust, with its connotations of victimhood, of passive victims going like lambs to the slaughter (a parallel process operated in Israel, too). Among American gentiles and Jews alike, the holocaust was cast as a crime of `totalitarianism', a subset of a gamut of Nazi crimes against the various peoples of Europe, and not THE defining crime of Nazism, with Jews taking the centre-stage in a pantheon of victims.
Nineteen Sixty-Seven was the threshold year, when the holocaust began to move from the periphery to the centre of American-Jewish consciousness. This partially reflected changes in American society: the integrationist ideals of the 1950s falling away with the rise of ethnic and group politics, with victimhood becoming something to be proud, not ashamed of. And what better badge of victimhood was there then the holocaust? Anti-Semitism was no longer just as a form of racism but a primordial pathology from which Jews could never be safe anywhere, not even in the United States. If this was the case, then it followed that Israel was a safe haven. Added to this, the fact that US policy makers came to see Israel as an indispensable ally and proxy in the Cold War, made Jewish lobbying for the country seem like an act of loyalty to American priorities, rather than ethnic special pleading for a foreign country. This was despite the almost total disappearance of anti-Semitism as a force in American life and the abolition of barriers to Jewish advance, processes which accelerated and deepened after 1967.
As we move into recent times, Novick offers an extended reflection of the `lessons' the holocaust supposedly offers us. He doubts whether the holocaust, as an extreme event, offers anything much in way of guidance as to how people in rich, peaceful societies should act. The so-called bystander problem - the supposed indifference on the part of the gentiles to the extermination of their Jewish neighbours - is easy to explain: most people were and are not heroes. In Nazi-occupied Europe, they kept their heads down, a rational if not exactly exalted response, but a perfectly understandable and comprehensible reaction nonetheless. In our own lives, we keep our heads down and our mouths shut, when faced with lesser injustices in our own societies, even when the penalty does not entail consignment to a concentration camp or a firing squad.
It seems then that, for Novick, the endless hyping of the lessons of the holocaust ends up refracted among the myriad of political and moral persuasions of those to whom the lessons are supposed to apply. People of different persuasions in other words come away from their encounters with the various representations of the holocaust in literature, film and museums with their minds already having been made up beforehand as to what lessons the holocaust can teach us.
This book is frequently bracketed with Norman Finkelstein's `The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish suffering. But their focus is very different. Finkelstein's work is a paint-blistering examination of the political misuses of the holocaust while Novick's is a cooler, sceptical account of the supposed lessons the holocaust has to teach us. However both men cover the same ground in their examination of the different way American Jews have come to see the holocaust before and after 1967. In this respect, Novick's work is superior, but Finkelstein hits home with greater power, documenting actual examples of the abuse of history he writes about and does not pull his punches, which Novick sometimes does. Both books can be read together with profit for those interested in this subject.
Ultimately what Novick succeeds in doing is to make a distinction between studying the holocaust as a historical occurrence and using it to draw `lessons' in the sense of pontificating and moralizing, from already established political and moral convictions, about the `relevance' of the holocaust to your own particular cause. Even if you disagree with his pessimism, it's worth reading this book in order for one to spot, and understand, the difference.